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Lawmakers Floating 'Radical' Ideas To Shift Control of Kentucky Schools

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Under court order to redesign the state's school system, Kentucky legislators have begun floating dramatic proposals--some have even called them radical--to overhaul the way schools in the state are governed.

Many of the controversial and politically contentious proposals would shift control of schools away from local districts to the state.

Legislators have proposed, among other suggestions, that locally elected school boards be abolished, that separate agencies be established for monitoring and assisting schools, and that all schools come under state control until they meet certain standards.

Donald J. Blandford, House speaker and co-chairman of the Task Force on Education Reform, said the legislature will have much greater influence over the state's schools through the redesign process than it typically has "coming in every two years and just appropriating money."

"What is fueling some of the radical new ideas about governance is that the decision says the legislature has to fix the school system and the legislature has to monitor it," said Robert F. Sexton, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group.

"I think everyone feels that we are in uncharted waters on the 'who's in charge' question," Mr. Sexton said.

In June, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the state's constitution clearly rests the responsibility for an "efficient system of common schools" squarely on the shoulders of the General Assembly.

The sweeping ruling came in a school-finance suit filed by 66 property-poor school districts. In addition to striking down the state's school-finance laws, the court rejected "the whole gamut of the common-school system."

How Kentucky legislators respond to the court order is not only being watched closely within the state, but by the national education community as well.

"What Kentucky does will have a good deal of national significance,'' Frank Newman, executive director of the Education Commission of the States, said at a July meeting with the task force.

Luverne Cunningham, a retired professor from Ohio State University, has been hired to aid the governance subcommittee. Consultants for two other task-force subcommittees--one on finance, the other on curriculum--have not been chosen; neither has an overall coordinator.

While the task force continues to establish the process for rebuilding the state's school system, individual legislators have begun sharing their ideas for the revamped system.

Michael R. Moloney, co-chairman of the task force's finance subcommittee, has argued that an overhaul of the state's property-tax system is needed. Specifically, Mr. Moloney, who is also chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, has proposed that county tax assessors, who are now elected, be appointed.

He has also suggested that a 1984 "academic bankruptcy" law, which allows the state to take over a district, be turned upside down.

Under the law, a district is locally controlled until it fails to meet certain state-set criteria for improvement. Instead, Mr. Moloney has said, districts should be required to "earn their freedom."

"Each district would be required to meet certain standards, and, until it meets those standards, governance would remain with the state," Mr. Moloney explained.

"If we are putting in 88 percent of the money in the system, we ought to be able to do that," he said.

Also receiving attention is a proposal to separate into two agencies the state's responsibilities for providing technical assistance to local districts and monitoring them for compliance.

Mr. Moloney is drafting legislation to establish a branch of the legislature similar to the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of the U.S. Congress.

Under the plan, the state education department would be responsible for helping districts improve, while the new agency would be charged with monitoring performance.

The idea was first raised at a task-force meeting with education experts in July. Roy Forbes, director of the Center for School Accountability in Raleigh, N.C., told legislators separating the jobs of educational improvement and school monitoring would remove the implied threat that exists when state school officials offer to help local administrators.

At a meeting of the task force's curriculum subcommittee last month, Betty Steffy, the state's deputy superintendent for public instruction, said experience has taught her problems can arise when state officials must both monitor and assist districts that are performing poorly.

"District personnel don't know if [a state official] is a coach or a cop," Ms. Steffy said. "They can't really be candid in admitting to problems if they know the same person is going to evaluate required progress."

Perhaps the most sweeping and politically complicated suggestion to surface is a proposal to abolish locally elected school boards in favor of appointed councils.

Roger C. Noe, a task force member and the chairman of the House Education Committee, has suggested that local "governing councils" replace school boards.

Mr. Noe said his proposal was prompted by a section in the ruling that states the General Assembly will monitor schools to ensure they are operated "with no waste, no duplication, no mismanagement, and with no political influence."

"One method to diminish the political influence is to have appointed school boards," Mr. Noe said.

Under his plan, local committees composed of community leaders would solicit applications from citizens interested in serving on the local councils.

Then, the selection committees would make recommendations to the appointing authority of the General Assembly.

Mr. Noe has proposed that local superintendents be appointed either by the state or by the councils working from a register of qualified candidates who had been screened and approved by a state-level search committee.

Similarly, some legislators have proposed that the state superintendent's position be made an appointive, rather than an elective, position.

To do that, voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment--something they have rejected five times this century, most recently in 1986.

Because voter approval has proved elusive, legislators are considering using legislation to gut the responsibilities of the position, leaving little more for the elected superintendent to do other than act as an ombudsman or good-will ambassador.

Legislators aren't the only ones generating ideas for reform.

The Prichard Committee, for example, has suggested that regional school business offices be established to handle purchases, student transportation, and the hiring of all school employees except teachers.

While many of the ideas would shift control to the state, other proposals are advocating a seemingly contradictory view--the establishment of a system that relies on school-based management.

"There are two directions going at once," said Mr. Sexton, of the Prichard Committee."We are talking about local leadership and site-based management on one hand, and greater state control on the other."

The Kentucky Education Association last month released a discussion paper on site-based management, suggesting that it be incorporated into the new system.

Legislators do not have to look out of state to find examples of school-based management.

In the Jefferson County school system, which includes Louisville, 24 schools participated last year in a restructuring project that has gained national attention.

The "Participatory Management Project" is being watched nationally because it was developed through contract negotiations between the district and the local union, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Keith Geiger, president of the n.e.a., said the pact is one of the most "educationally far-reaching" in the nation.

This year, 24 schools will be added to the project.

Mr. Noe argues that the ideas of greater monitoring by the General Assembly and site-based management do not necessarily work against each other.

"I for one believe that we can maintain local school input without having elected school boards," he said. "And one does not need a locally elected school board for site-based management to occur."

Both Mr. Noe and Mr. Sexton acknowledge one reason so many radical ideas have been proposed is that it is still early in the redesign process.

"What we are going through are the first stages of catharsis in dealing with this decision," Mr. Sexton said. "But eventually, the legislators on the task force will have to begin closing the door on some ideas and working more seriously on others."

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